A cursory search on YouTube reveals that female hand-to-hand combat, otherwise known as a "catfight," is quite popular. Whether it is so-called ratchet fights involving overweight women from tough neighborhoods, Bond Girls duking it on a plane, or Ronda Rousey getting kicked in the head by Holly Holm during a pay-per-view MMA bout, the act has become, through third-wave feminism, clearly a Thing. Into this space comes Turkish American director Onur Tukel's latest feature film, Catfight, easily the goofiest comedy to drop at this year's Toronto International Film Festival.
The film centers on the increasingly violent, multiyear rivalry between two former college friends, now in their 40s, whose lives have taken very different paths. At first glance, Sandra Oh's wealthy Manhattanite Veronica and Anne Heche's working-class painter Ashley don't seem like the type of women who would attempt to settle their petty differences with a brutal dust-up. But when Veronica and Ashley run into each other at a cocktail party, at which the latter is working, things quickly deteriorate into a no-holds barred fight in a stairwell that leaves one of them in a coma (and desperately seeking revenge).
Neither of these women earns our sympathy or outright scorn in Catfight. They, and the world they live in, prove to be cruel, ironic, and deliciously funny.
The combat in the film is not particularly realistic, but it is rather gory and quite unlike anything Heche or Oh has ever done. "We went to them and met with them and they were like, 'Fuck yeah, we love this script,'" recalled Tukel the day after his film's premiere. A burly, gregarious painter, actor, and filmmaker, he had planned to make the film for under $200,000 with actresses he was familiar with from the New York indie film world, but when production company MPI and the talent agency UTA approached him about "scaling up" the production, he jumped at the opportunity.
Since appearing in Michael Tully's Sundance favorite Septien five years ago, Tukel has increasingly made a niche for himself in the indie scene making freewheeling micro-budget comedies. But he was unsure the actresses were ready for his run-and-gun approach. "You all come from Hollywood, real fucking movie sets, big shit, I'm a small-time fucker with two little video cameras, running around with a tiny crew, is that OK with you?" Tukel remembered saying to his leads, before suggesting that they watch his last film Applesauce to get a sense of the production's size and aesthetic. "They watched it, and they loved it and were like, 'Yeah, we just want to make something cool.'"
Tukel paints the world of the film in broad satirical strokes, giving us no one to really root for in the ongoing struggle between the two women. Veronica lives in a modern Soho apartment amidst a loveless marriage to a husband (Damian Young), who makes money working in debris-disposal during America's latest overseas war. She steers her son (Giullian Gioiello) away from the artwork he naturally gravitates toward, instructing him to go to the Ivy League and work in finance. Ashley, on the other hand, serves as proof that a career in art might also not be the answer. Her stridently political and frankly terrible paintings don't attract many buyers, forcing her more economically stable girlfriend Lisa (Alicia Silverstone) to care of her.
While never losing sight of the film's comedic tone, Oh and Heche make the characters' motivations for fighting, and the pain that undergirds those motivations, very lived and visceral, so much so that you suspend your disbelief when they fight again and again. The two women fight at the end of each act in the film, with the fortunes of the characters being reversed in many humorous and unseen ways by the time the loser wakes up, each time to an altogether different personal and political reality. The film works as a political satire in ways that are not immediately apparent, but grow into fruition by the third act, in which both women have been long-hospitalized and our assumption of how the country would have changed in each character's absence has been upended.
"The obvious trajectory is it's going to get worse, everything is going to be out of control, its going to mimic what happened with the war in Iraq," Tukel said, before suggesting that he was constantly trying to find ways to challenge his own liberal views for comedic effect.
"What I based this movie on, in terms of the pacing of it, was Rocky III," said Tukel as we sipped from tea and beer in the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel. Like Stallone's film, the fights of cartoonish brutality showcased in each of the film's three acts is a major turning point for the protagonist(s). But whereas you are firmly behind Rocky Balboa in the Rocky franchise, neither of these women earns our sympathy or outright scorn in Catfight. They, and the world they live in, prove to be cruel, ironic, and deliciously funny.
"The characters are not likable in most of my films," Tukel opined. "This is my way of beating them up."